Comic, talk show host, actor, producer
Growing up in a poor, inner city neighborhood in Cleveland, young Arsenio Hall was fascinated by the sophisticated and witty hosts of the talk shows he watched on television. Determining when he was only 12 years old that he wanted to be among them, he devoted his spare time to learning the skills he would need to be an entertainer. By the time he was 35, Hall had become not only the host of his own show, but also the first African-American man to produce a successful talk show. More, the name Arsenio Hall and the catch phrases from his show had become familiar in households throughout the United States. Hall expanded his career to include directing, producing, and writing as well.
Hall was born on February 12, 1955, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he grew up in a poor and largely black ghetto neighborhood. His father, Fred Hall, was a Baptist minister and a harsh and often abusive man who demanded strict obedience from his family. When Arsenio was only five, his mother, Annie Hall, divorced his father and took her young son to live with her mother a few blocks away. Attending school while working two jobs to support her family, Annie Hall had little energy left to pay attention to her theatrical son, but she did send him to summer classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, to help him develop his creativity.
Hall did well in school, but his real love was entertaining. He loved watching the performers on television and developed a particular fondness for talk shows. When he was 12, he announced to his mother that he wanted to grow up to be Johnny Carson and set up a stage in the basement where he practiced interviewing celebrities, as Carson did on The Tonight Show. He also began taking lessons in puppetry, music, and magic. By the time he was a teenager, Hall had become a skilled magician and earned extra money performing at parties.
After graduating from high school, Hall became the first member of his family to attend college, starting in 1972 at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He later transferred to Kent State University in northeastern Ohio, where he graduated in 1976, with a major in speech communication. After graduation, Hall decided to try his hand at advertising and took a job with the Noxell Corporation, makers of Noxzema Cream and Cover Girl Cosmetics.
After only a year in the corporate world, Hall felt that he had to pursue his dream of becoming an entertainer. He quit his job and moved to Chicago, where he began to work on a standup comedy act, honing his performance in comedy clubs. In 1979, Hall was "discovered" by famous jazz singer Nancy Wilson, while performing his comedy act in a Chicago club. Wilson was impressed by Hall's humor, openness, and genuine warmth, and she hired him as the master of ceremonies for her Chicago show.
Hall's energy and good humor made him a natural as an opening act, but an accident of timing gave him the chance to prove his ability. One night, when Wilson was 20 minutes late for her performance, Hall managed the audience so well that he was hired to complete the tour and return to Los Angeles with the show. Once in the entertainment capital, he began to open for a wide variety of other performers, from pop stars such as Tina Turner, to veteran entertainers like Robert Goulet.
Hall's success on stage led to television appearances on such shows as ABC's Half Hour Comedy Hour. In 1984, he received his first offer of a continuing role on a television program. Alan Thicke, an innovative Canadian comic, hired Hall to be the announcer on his syndicated late-night talk show, Thicke of the Night. As announcer and sidekick to the host, Hall added charm to Thicke of the Night, but critics did not like the show. Thicke's blend of comedy and interview could not compete with the giant of late-night programming, The Tonight Show, and the show was cancelled after one season.
However, Hall's performance on Thicke of the Night had impressed network executives, and he began to substitute for Joan Rivers on her FOX network show, The Late Show with Joan Rivers. In 1987, when Rivers left the show, Hall was hired to replace her. As he had imagined as a youth pretending to host his own show in the basement of his Cleveland home, Hall was a natural talk show host. He was friendly and charming, hip and funny, and, during the 13 weeks he hosted The Late Show, his popularity began to grow. FOX had made a previous commitment to replace the show, so, even though Hall had improved ratings considerably, The Late Show with Arsenio Hall ended after 13 weeks.
In 1988, Hall took a break from television to work in two films with an old friend. Hall and comic actor Eddie Murphy had become friends while Hall was working as a comic in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. In Murphy's 1988 movie, Coming to America, Hall demonstrated his versatility by helping to write the script and playing several roles, receiving both an American Comedy Award and an NAACP Image Award for his acting work. In 1989, Hall joined Murphy again in the comedy Harlem Nights, a gangster film set in 1930s New York.
Hall had also been working on creating his own syndicated late-night talk show, and, on January 3, 1989, The Arsenio Hall Show debuted on dozens of stations around the country. Unlike Thicke of the Night, which had failed in its attempt to compete with The Tonight Show, The Arsenio Hall Show sought to appeal to a younger, hipper audience that did not watch Johnny Carson. Hall's show was a winning combination of sassiness and affability, much like its host's personality. Hall himself wrote the show's theme song, titled "Hall or Nothing" and founded Arsenio Hall Communication to produce the program.
The Arsenio Hall Show ran for five and a half years and was syndicated on more than 167 stations, drawing a substantial portion of the late-night audience, and overwhelming other late-night newcomers, such as Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase, and Rick Dees. During a time when sarcasm and coolness were the style among talk show hosts, Hall treated his guests with an almost bubbly warmth and friendliness. Several of Hall's catchphrases and routines caught on in the popular culture, such as the shout, "Let's get busy!" with which he began every show, and "Give it up for …" which called for applause as a guest entered. Hall also led his audience in an unusual cheer, circling his raised fist and barking loudly, "Woof! Woof! Woof!" Though Hall told Ebony's Lynn Normant in a 1992 interview that he did not want to create a "black show," he did want to give his audiences the feeling that they were at a party in an African American household, where guests were encouraged to relax and be themselves.
Intentionally lining up guests from a variety of arenas, Hall became famous for seating politicians alongside rappers, and greeting them all with his trademark wide grin and genial silliness. Hall did not, however, shy away from controversy or serious topics. In one 1991 show Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson granted Hall his first interview after publicly revealing that he was HIV positive, and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton made a bid for the youth vote by playing a saxophone solo on Arsenio in 1992. Hall also showcased several important African-American leaders, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. His 1994, one-on-one interview with outspoken Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan created so much controversy that some critics blame Farrakhan's appearance for the show's cancellation.
At a Glance …
Born Arsenio Hall on February 12, 1955, in Cleveland, Ohio; children: Arsenio Jr. Education: Kent State University, BA, speech communication, 1976.
Career: comedian, late 1970s; television host, 1984–; actor, 1988–; executive producer, 1992–.
Selected awards: American Comedy Award, for funniest actor in a motion picture, 1988; NAACP Image Awards, for outstanding supporting actor in a motion picture, 1990.
When The Arsenio Hall Show was cancelled in May 1994, Hall took a break from television. He returned briefly for an ABC situation comedy called Arsenio, about the family life of a sports reporter, played by Hall. The show was cancelled before the season ended, and Hall took another break from public life before returning in another television series, Martial Law, a comic drama, which featured Hall as a streetwise Los Angeles policeman. In 2003, Hall returned to hosting, when CBS re-introduced Star Search, a talent show, which Hall emceed for two seasons.
One of Hall's main interests has always been to develop and produce films. During the run of The Arsenio Hall Show, he worked on several production projects, including Botha! a film about the political struggles of blacks in South Africa, which was released in 1993. In 2006, he produced another film on a topic close to his heart. The Other 23 Hours documents the lives and careers of standup comics, who are usually only seen during the hour they spend on stage.
During the early 2000s, Hall became a single parent, and began to reorganize his career around raising his son. No longer driven to prove himself, he worked on an occasional film, like the 2005 animated feature The Proud Family Movie, and relaxed by painting, a hobby suggested to him by his friend jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis.
Coming to America, (performer and co-writer), 1988.
Harlem Nights, 1989.Time Out: The Truth About HIV, AIDS, and You (executive producer and host), 1992.
Bopha! (executive producer), 1993.
The Other 23 Hours (executive producer, director, and host), 2006.
The Half Hour Comedy Hour, 1983.
The Real Ghost Busters, 1986–1987.
The Late Show, 1987.
The Arsenio Hall Show, 1989–1994.
Martial Law, 1999–2000.
The Proud Family Movie, 2005.
Who's Who in Comedy, Facts on File, 1992.
American Visions, February/March 1994.
Cosmopolitan, March 1990, pp.170-4.
Current Biography, September 1989, pp. 10-4.
Ebony, June 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, January 5, 2001, p.76.
Essence, July 1989 pp. 50-4, November 1993.
Jet, January 22, 1990, pp. 60-3; April 21, 1997, p. 58.
Newsweek, March 10, 1997, p. 78.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 2003.
Time, November 13, 1989, p. 92.
UPI NewsTrack, August 18, 2005.
Arsenio Hall, www.arseniohall.com (June 12, 2006).